By Andrew Jenner, publisher
Immediately east of Interstate 81, between the Stone Spring bypass and Reservoir Street and split down the middle by Port Republic Road, Census Tract 2.07 is the heartland of JMU off-campus housing. According to figures from the 2020 Census, released last week, the tract was home to 6,088 people on April 1 of that year.
However, the 2010 Census reported a population of 6,931 for the same area, “despite new homes being built in the tract and JMU’s off-campus enrollment rising by approximately 2,900 during the period,” wrote Hamilton Lombard, a demographer at the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center, in an email to The Citizen.
According to Lombard, Tract 2.07 represents the most glaring example of what appears to have been a more than 2,000-person undercount of Harrisonburg’s population by the 2020 Census, which reported a total of 51,814 city residents. The Weldon Cooper Center, which releases annual population estimates for all Virginia localities, estimated Harrisonburg’s population at 54,049 on July 1, 2020 – more than 2,200 people higher than the Census figure.
“Census counts for college towns in Virginia were typically quite a bit lower than our estimates,” Lombard wrote. “Aside from college towns, our estimates for other localities were on average within 1.3% of the 2020 Census count (when adjusted for April rather than July), which indicates to me that college students were often missed in the 2020 Census.”
The Covid-19 pandemic, which delayed the release of 2020 Census data by months, is likely the culprit, as the count took place after universities had begun shutting down and encouraging students to return home.
Harrisonburg’s undercount — approximately 4 percent of the Weldon Cooper Center estimate — doesn’t seem to be an outlier in Virginia, Lombard said. The undercount appears to have been higher in Radford and Charlottesville, he said, while noting that in both cities, college students represent a larger share of the total population, making the discrepancy easier to identify.
“Use with care”
A significant potential impact of the census undercount, Lombard said, is that population totals are used to allocate funding to the city and metro area. The Census Bureau’s population figures will also be used in the political redistricting process now underway in Virginia.
“The undercount of the city’s population will come up repeatedly during this decade in a lot of different ways,” Lombard wrote.
The 2020 Census population total for Rockingham County is 83,757 — about 1,000 residents more than the Weldon Cooper Center’s 2020 estimate of 82,809 for Rockingham County. That adds up to a combined 2020 Census population of 135,571 people for the Harrisonburg Metropolitan Area, which consists of the city and county.
According Lombard, the city could undergo a count resolution process in an attempt to change the published figure for Harrisonburg’s population, although he noted that it is “a very time intensive process that typically results in only a few more missing residents being added to the city’s population.”
City Spokesman Mike Parks wrote in an email that city leaders are “aware of the discrepancy between those numbers and the most recent Weldon Cooper estimate.”
“We are still ascertaining the Census figures and working to understand what impact that could have on Harrisonburg. It is too soon as of today to talk about what steps could be taken to rectify the discrepancy in the numbers, or if the City was interested in going down that road.”
Lombard added that the pandemic’s impacts on the count, along with the Census Bureau’s use of a new privacy system, which the Weldon Cooper Center says will distort data at sub-state levels, “makes it impossible to automatically accept the 2020 data as a fact. Any 2020 Census data will need to be used with care.”
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